Somewhere around a year ago I got a message from a young lady from India. She had recently graduated from culinary school (in the last couple of years) and was working in an upscale restaurant a couple hours from her home town. In the first couple of weeks on the job she received unsolicited advances from male co-workers. She tried to shrug them off, chalking it up to commonplace in the industry, assuming the male co-workers would get the hint and leave her alone. Then, one night, leaving late at the end of the out of the back door of the kitchen, she was followed out by one of the line cooks. Catching up to her, he groped her and forced himself onto her, until she was able to break away. Running for her life, she made it back to the safety of her apartment and was back home with her parents by the middle of the next morning. She was ashamed at having to return home, as everyone in her family and close friends told her she didn’t belong in the kitchen – she wasn’t cut out for it, it was a man’s world and she was foolish for thinking otherwise.

She was looking for reassurance – was her family right, did she not belong, or was this just an isolated incident that unfortunately happened to her? She asked me what she should do next and should she get back into the restaurant world, after what had been a nearly six month hiatus since that scary night.

The sad truth is that this type of terror haunting female restaurant workers is all too common. The scary thing is that often it’s not as obvious as the scenario detailed above, but rather a nuanced power struggle between the often male dominated top of the pyramid and the climb up the later, that for female workers might mean subjecting themselves to uncomfortable situations with those male higher-ups. This is where we get the expression, “sleep your way to the top”, however, I’m sure most women would prefer to make it to the top in other, less self-sacrificing ways.

In recent weeks we’ve seen a number of stories come out involving Harvey Weinstein (and other Hollywood moguls), Uber, the tech hotshot Robert Scoble, media personalities like Bill O’Reilly and in the most recent news celebrity chef, John Besh.

What do all of these men have in common?

They are in positions of power and in no environment is sexual harassment able to go by unnoticed, then in the restaurant industry, which up until now has been considered a “good old boys club”. Don’t think that this scandal with John Besh is only coming to the surface because of situations in other industries, because there has been an ongoing investigation into allegations that popped up in February. The reality of this situation is only going to get worse and more dark news will put into question other power-holding chefs and owners in the industry – I’m sure you can add Todd English to this list, Michael Chiarello is already on this list, as are others, and the list will only grow.

Up until now, it has long been considered this is just the way it is – the restaurant industry has always been known for debauchery and inappropriate behavior, but it’s not just the elite chefs who take advantage of the position they are in, it’s also many managers and owners across the world that are often taking advantage of the same type of situation with their staffs, even if they only have one restaurant – they have control and that mixed with the laissez faire attitude in the industry, allows them to think they can’t get away with it. But, not anymore. This is certainly a dark time for the industry, with enough other challenges to is image as it relates to culture.

How did we get to this point? I don’t know. I’ve seen it going on for a long time. A lot of us have seen it going on for a long time. I remember working with my sister during my years in college at the University of Alabama – we were all out for a drink after work one night and the general manager of the restaurant said he wanted to “bury his head in my sister’s chest“. What was she supposed to do? What was I, the protective older brother, supposed to do? Would my job be in jeopardy if I fought back? These are the kinds of questions restaurant workers and victims themselves ask each other on a daily basis. It’s not right and a change in the dynamic is long overdue.

“If we held our own personal conduct to the same standards as our food, our staffs and the customer service we provide – we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

How we got here isn’t as important as what we decide to do as an industry, moving forward. These conversations help, but they don’t mean anything if stories like those of Besh and other celebrity chefs don’t set a new precedent. We need to realize it’s not just about sexual harassment, it’s what that harassment does to the people it affects – it creates an environment and culture where they don’t feel safe and protected. In a world with so much drama and obstacles each of us have to face on a daily basis, the last thing any of us need is added stress waiting for us at work. As Chef Kenny Gilbert detailed in my first book, Making the Cut:

“We all have monkeys on our backs – it could be bills you’ve fallen behind on, an argument with your spouse, challenges disciplining your children, traffic on the way to work – whatever it is, we have these monkeys weighing us down. When we walk in the door at work, right there next to it is a tree. Now, what I encourage all of my employees to do, which is what my mentor encouraged me to do at a rough point in my life, is to leave the monkeys on the tree out by the back door – don’t bring the monkeys into work, because guess what? They’ll be waiting for you the minute you get out of work. We need to be able to see work as a place where we can get away from the problems that follow us around in life, not just another place creating more of them.”

3 KEYS TO MOVING FORWARD IN THE RESTAURANT INDUSTRY:

  1. Like with many problems in life and in the restaurant industry, communication is a key factor. We need to create environments where communication is paramount and where individuals feel as though they can communicate without fear of losing their jobs or being shunned in some regard. Instead, we’ve done the exact opposite and what has allowed this good old boys club type of environment in the industry is deeply rooted in the tension between the ego of those in charge and the inability for those on the other end to properly communicate when that ego gets in the way. Work needs to be a place of mutual respect, which leads to open communication and trust – it’s up to each of us to both create that and uphold that for both ourselves and the people around us.
  2. We need to, across the board and regardless of title, be empathetic to those around us. It all goes back to the golden rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. We need to open our eyes to the ones around us and understand what they might be going through, how we connect with them and how we can better serve each other – this can be really hard, because we’re all so caught up in our own lives, our own careers and what we need to get done on a daily basis. If we can stop and listen to those around us enough to sense a degree of fright, nervousness and or uncertainty, I think we would all be a lot more understanding of each other and the battles we’re all facing in and out of work. This won’t fix everything, but it will certainly help remind us that in difficult times we aren’t alone and that there are people around us to support us, encourage and have a fundamental interest in our wellbeing.
  3. Last, but certainly not least, we as leaders, need to take responsibility and for ourselves and the positions of authority we have. Yes, we can use these dynamic in a self-serving way, or we can use it as a way to do good in the industry and in the world. We’re responsible for the people around and the environments we create and I think many often lose sight of that, using their position of influence for their gain. Simon Sinek in his book Leaders Eat Last, talks about how the best leaders have courage to do the right thing and the hard, which in almost every circumstance takes on the approach of looking after one’s own staff in much the same way that you would if these individuals were your very own children. Thus, you create an environment that allows them to thrive and to be successful. Chef Thomas Keller mentions in his TEDx talk that our goal as chefs, managers and restaurateurs is to leave the next generation in a better position to succeed. How can we help them to create a life and career they might have never imagined for themselves? All of this comes down to being a good leader and the type of leadership that is most often overlooked when one’s ego gets in the way.

How will the restaurant industry deal with these challenges moving forward? I’m not sure, however I think this wake up call will be both helpful and cathartic. We need to remind ourselves and each other why we decided to get into this industry in the first place – to make people happy – that’s always a good place to start. If each of us does our part, things should take care of themselves. It starts with holding ourselves accountable. If we held our own personal conduct to the same standards as our food, our staffs and the customer service we provide – we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

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